By Ruth Conniff
Wisconsin workers face a lousy jobs picture this Labor Day, according to...
Last year Governor Scott Walker told billionaire Diane Hendricks that the first step toward turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work state was to destroy collective bargaining rights for public workers. Once workers in state institutions have no more decision making powers, it becomes easier to control those institutions for the benefit of business owners through political appointments to agencies, governing boards and committees.
These dynamics are playing out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison through the process of developing new policies for employees. On Tuesday evening over a hundred people showed up to a panel discussion about the UW-Madison Human Resources Design Project. That’s a fancy title for the complete overhaul of compensation, benefit and due process policies for UW-Madison employees.
This project was made possible by Walker’s infamous Act 10, which removed all meaningful collective bargaining rights from state workers, and Act 32, the 2011 – 2013 budget bill that removed 40,000 UW workers from the civil service system and mandated the establishment of a new human resource system for UW-Madison, and another one for all other college and university campuses in the UW System.
Tuesday’s event was put together by members of four labor unions on campus: The Teaching Assistants Association, United Faculty and Academic Staff AFT Local 223, and AFSCME locals 171 and 2412. Speakers from each of these unions gave 5-minute presentations, as did two faculty members and Bob Lavigna, director of the Office of Human Resources at UW-Madison and Human Resources Design Project manager.
As director of Wisconsin’s civil service under Governor Tommy Thompson, Lavigna was named Governing magazine’s Public Official of the Year in 2000 and given the moniker “Work-Force Liberator.” He opened his remarks referring to Acts 10 and 32 saying, “We’ve been hoping for this opportunity for many years.”
The UW-Madison administration seized the opportunity and developed a proposal that includes a sharp decrease, or in some cases total elimination of, due process rights, employment rights, changes in pay based on the subjective evaluation of a supervisor, wages tied to “market rates,” and the de-valuing of seniority in scheduling, transfer, and other issues related to the working environment for non-faculty employees.
David Ahrens, retired researcher at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, criticized the administration for taking the low road, with a major shift in philosophy and practice from a decades-long tradition of employee power sharing in the workplace, to the “fig leaf” of participation where workers only have the power to advise and recommend, not to decide as they did when collective bargaining and more progressive work policies were in place.
Bob Lavigna, the man who “set bureaucracy free” in the 1990s, admitted that nobody on campus will be completely satisfied with the proposal. He talked about the difficult task of “balancing conflicting stakeholder interests” and pleaded with the audience to recognize all the hard work that went into creating the plan that is designed to “attract, develop, and maintain talent” at UW-Madison.
Joshua Brazee, PhD candidate in the English Department worked on one of the eleven teams assigned to develop recommendations for the project over the past year. He challenged Lavigna on claims that the work teams represented a diverse cross section of the campus community.
“The team I worked on had variety – me,” said Brazee. “Mostly they were HR people. All of us were people with BAs or above; all of us were white. The only faculty members were from the School of Business.” Brazee went on, “I’m a smart guy, but I was drowning in jargon and information in order to even pretend to be on equal footing with the HR professionals in the group.”
Ahrens confirmed Brazee’s observations. He analyzed the composition of all eleven teams and determined that at least 1/3 of the 149 members named on team lists were human resource administrators, and another 1/3 had administrative titles that “put them above HR.” The other 1/3 was comprised of an assortment of people including Business School faculty members, Brazee, and “phantom” members like Linda Meinholz, an accountant in the Graduate School’s Research and Sponsored Programs.
Meinholz reported that she was told by her supervisor to not attend the team meetings, even though she continued to receive e-mails from the group and her name remained on the team lists. “I’ve heard that there are other cases of similar situations,” she said.
Gary Mitchell, president of AFSCME 2412, which represents administrative support staff at UW-Madison, UW System Administration, UW-Extension. UW Colleges, UW-Baraboo and UW-Rock County, said the whole process was flawed and should be done over again giving more decision making power to the people directly affected by the policy changes.
“My experience is that elected representatives make decisions and staff offer advice, they don’t vote,” said Mitchell. “While HR staff are nice people, they have vested interests in this and they actually voted on these recommendations. I would welcome their input, but the people affected by these decisions should do the voting,” he added.
Mitchell noted that the legislative deadline of July 1, 2013, for having a new system in place only applies to a small part of the project, and that the huge issues of compensation and benefits have already been removed from the plan and will undergo many more months of study and consideration. “There are other chunks that could be treated the same way and have a deliberative, inclusive process with technical advice,” said Mitchell. “We should go back to the drawing board and take as long as we need to do it right.”
Mitchell called for people concerned about the plan to contact the three “executive sponsors” of the project, Chancellor David Ward, Provost Paul DeLuca, and Darrel Bazzell, Vice Chancellor. The UW Board of Regents will meet on December 7 to review the plan. If approved, it will move on to the Joint Committee on Employment Relations for consideration by the state legislature.
Taylan Acar, PhD student in Sociology, raised the question, “If there’s a deadline, what is the value of what we’re doing now?” A similar question ran through my mind throughout the discussion, but it wasn’t about deadlines, it was about the larger political context within which the project is taking place.
Earlier in the afternoon I attended a meeting of the Governor’s College and Workforce Readiness Council, which met to discuss the issue of performance-based funding for higher education. Instead of allocating state money to public colleges and universities based on enrollment formulas, performance based funding models link public financing to specific performance objectives. These measures are as varied as graduation rates, job placements of graduates in specific industries, commercial potential of research projects, or any other outcome for which decision makers want to give incentives.
Tim Sullivan, chair of the council, told the group of business leaders, legislators, and leaders of the UW System, Wisconsin Technical College System and Wisconsin Independent Colleges that “performance-based funding is definitely coming. One way or the other we want to be prepared for it.” He added, “It’s better for the educational institutions to have that discussion in this kind of a forum instead of whatever committee will be formed to deal with it in the future. On the other side, I’d like to hear from the private sector people at the table about what you’re looking for.”
Sullivan chairs several workforce development groups and was named special consultant for business development by Scott Walker earlier this year. His efforts are aimed at orienting the entire public education system, including k-12, toward the needs of private businesses, particularly those in the manufacturing sector.
Last January UW System President Kevin Reilly created a new position to “strengthen relationships between the system and businesses statewide, while also connecting researchers and others in the system to drive statewide economic growth.” David Brukardt became the first Vice President for Economic Development and attended the College and Workforce Readiness Council Tuesday on behalf of Reilly. He told the group, “The UW System is one of the top four most regulated systems in the country.” Referring to Acts 10 and 32 he said, “We got a few tools to help us be more flexible in the last budget cycle, but we need more.”
At the human resources panel discussion, Assistant Professor and Faculty Senator Noah Feinstein decried the lack of faculty participation and interest in the project, saying it was “disgraceful.” While noting that many faculty members believe that the provisions of the plan don’t affect them directly, he pointed out that “new norms” in higher education are forming around market-based language and practice in general, and the UW project is but one product of this competitive culture that affects everyone. He also expressed concerns about a hollowing out of faculty governance: “It’s not at all clear to me whether the Faculty Senate can approve or reject this, and if it is rejected, whether that would make a difference.”
With the UW Board of Regents stacked with Walker appointees and people like David Brukardt representing the interests of the UW community in high level policy meetings, Feinstein has good reason to be concerned.
Director of Human Resources University of Wisconsin-Madison letter to the editor in response to UW-Madison Takes the Low Road in Overhauling Employment Policies.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.